The Country Guesthouse by Robyn Carr will be available Jan 07, 2020. Preorder your copy today!
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OWEN AND HIS GREAT DANE, ROMEO, WALKED AROUND the lake and up the road to Sully's store. Sully was sitting on the porch with his son-in-law, Cal Jones. His little granddaughter was sitting on the porch steps. The moment three-year-old Elizabeth saw them, she clapped her hands and yelled, "Womeo!" The Great Dane paused, turned his big head to look up at Owen. "Okay," Owen said. Romeo took off at a gallop, looking like a pony, loping across the yard to his welcome party. Sully's yellow Lab, Beau, met Romeo at the porch steps and the two dogs treated themselves to a trot around the yard.
Owen leaned his walking stick against the porch, doffed his backpack and ruff led Elizabeth's hair as he took the steps.
"Hey, neighbor," Sully said. "How's the shootin' today?"
"I only see the good stuff if I leave the camera at home," Owen said. He shook Sully's hand, then Cal's. "Looks like the campground's filling up."
"It's always spring break somewhere," Sully said. "At least I get the outdoorsy types instead of the drink-till-you-puke types."
Owen laughed. "Good planning, Sully. Is it too early for a beer?" he asked, looking at Cal's beer.
"I hope not," Cal said. "Maggie's in Denver. I'm holding down the fort with Elizabeth's help."
"Your secret is safe with me," Owen said.
"That's nice, but unnecessary. Now that Elizabeth can actually talk, nothing is sacred."
"What's a sacwed, Daddy?"
"I'll tell you later," Cal said.
Owen got himself a cold bottle of beer from the cooler inside, left a few dollars on the counter and wandered back onto the porch. He sat down, stretched out his very long legs and took a long pull on his beer. Romeo and Beau wandered back to the store porch. Romeo treated Elizabeth to a full face wash, cleaning her off with a few hearty licks. She squealed with delight and said, "Oh-oh-oh-oh, Womeo! I love you, too."
The men all laughed. "Why can't the weather be like this all year?" Owen asked.
"Because we need that snowpack," Sully said. "Don't need those summer fires, though. You just coming home or you getting ready to go away again?"
"I've been back a week," Owen said. "Next is Taiwan in about a month, but they've been having some serious weather issues right where I plan to shoot. I'm keeping an eye on that."
Owen, a photographer, was a freelancer. When he was younger he did a lot of portraits, school pictures, weddings, family Christmas cards, that sort of thing. When he was in his thirties he began doing more artistic photographs and sometimes more political photos — war-ravaged villages, citizens of impoverished countries, the poverty or decadence in his own country, as well as interesting or beautiful landscapes, mountains, wildlife. Then he wrote accompanying essays or blogs for his photos and became something of a travel writer, with a twist. He would expose the blunders, chaos, humor and turmoil in his own little world of professional photography, and he became famous — reluctantly. He snuck into the kitchens of five-star hotels, backstage at concerts, into locker rooms at sporting events and behind the scenes at dog shows — anything that seemed interesting and where he could potentially expose a secret or insight or revelation. A few books of his collected photos and essays were published and, for some crazy reason, people bought them.
What he was most interested in was art and travel, experiencing other cultures. And solitude — he always traveled alone. "I'm spending a couple of weeks in Vietnam in July. I love Vietnam," Owen said.
"I can't remember loving it," Sully said.
"Exactly what my dad said." Owen laughed.
"It's so polite of you to remind me I'm old enough to be your father," Sully said.
"Old enough to be mine, too," Cal said. "Oh, that's right, you kind of are. By marriage."
"Where's Helen?" Owen asked.
"Some kind of writing convention in New York."
"And you never go along?"
"Not to these book things," Sully said. "She's better off without me. She and the writer friends whoop it up. I don't have the wanderlust like you and Helen. And someone has to be around here to mind the store. I can't see renting out my place like you do yours."
"That doesn't always work out so great," Owen said. "There are times it's a little awkward. Sometimes a trip gets canceled and I end up being on the property. But that's only happened twice. The Realtor who manages the rentals around here always contacts the guests and offers a refund or another place, but if they want the house, I just stay in the barn and they mostly ignore me." He took a drink of his beer. "I should probably sell the house and move into the barn. It's really all I need."
"Why'd you build that big house, then?" Sully asked.
"I like that house," Owen said. "I also like the barn."
The barn had been converted into a studio and guesthouse. There was a bedroom and kitchenette behind the studio. The light was good. He had all his camera equipment set up there, plus shelves for his favorite books. There was a bigger library in the main house — Owen loved books. He took people in very small doses and liked his own company. He was drawn to nature, travel, reading, quiet and his work. He blew up and transferred his pictures onto canvases, mounted them himself, carted them around to a variety of galleries and gift shops, and the last few years he had been contracted to provide his photos to hotels, restaurants and private buyers.
"You know I live in a barn," Cal reminded Owen.
"My barn isn't as fancy as your barn. It's a shop. With a bed in it. But my house trumps your house." Then he grinned.
"What do you do with all those bedrooms?" Sully asked.
"Nothing except when I rent it out. In a few years I might sell it. I don't know. I like the location. And sometimes my sister and her kids come. Plus, I have friends ..."
"You do?" Sully asked.
"Well, yeah. Some. Not too many. I don't want too many.
How many have you got?"
"About six," Sully said, smiling. "And a town. Plus the Jones clan intermarried with some of my friends so now I have a big family, and I never saw that coming."
"Neither did the Jones clan," Cal said.
"Is your whole family here now?" Owen asked Cal.
"All but my parents and my sister Sedona — she's still back east, but she turns up regularly for visits. Sierra and Connie are neighbors now. Dakota just took a teaching job right smack between Boulder and Timberlake, so we see him and Sid a lot. Sid's brother and his wife live in town. It's a complicated web. I could make you up a chart."
"Is there going to be a test?" Owen asked. But he was thinking he had far fewer connections, and he wondered if they found him odd. But of course they found him odd — he was six foot five and thin, seen wandering around the trails with his backpack full of cameras and his giant dog named Romeo. His big house was full of unused bedrooms that he let strangers borrow. He explained away his solitary ways as a life of art when the truth was he was afraid of close relationships and he distracted himself with travel. Women hit on him a lot. They probably suspected he was rich. From time to time he let them catch him, just not for long. He was only a little rich. He made a very respectable living.
"If you met the right woman you could have a mess of kids," Sully said.
"You think there's any chance of that now?" Owen asked. "I'm forty-five and dull."
"I didn't know you were only forty-five," Cal said, grinning.
"Another twenty years and you'll be a cranky old man and fit right in," Sully said. "Then again, I only met Helen about a year ago. I still can't figure out what she sees in me." Then he laughed wickedly.
Owen was crazy about Helen. She and Sully were living together. Helen wrote mystery novels that Sully said were filled with gore and dead bodies. He claimed to sleep with one eye open. Owen thought they were the cutest couple anywhere. "Maybe when I'm seventy, I'll meet the right one. You're a good example — if you can find a perfect woman, anyone can."
"Well, good luck to you," Sully said. "But that ain't gonna help use all those bedrooms much by then."
The few weeks after finding her fiancé with her assistant turned into a complete nightmare for Hannah. She faced some very unpleasant and immediate chores: get Wyatt out of her house, hire some temporary admin help at the office and try to ignore the never-ending gossip about how Hannah came home from a business trip to find her fiancé and assistant knocking boots. Everyone but Hannah was quite entertained by the tantalizing story.
Hannah and Wyatt had been together for three years. They'd dated for a year, lived together for a year and had been engaged for a year. Hannah was thirty-five; he was not her first boyfriend. He wasn't her first fiancé, for that matter. She overheard one of the gossips say, "Maybe three's the charm."
She had to tell her friends who were supposed to be bridesmaids. Except Stephanie, who had also been a designated bridesmaid. That was irrelevant now, though Hannah did wonder if they were still seeing each other. Maybe Wyatt could marry her since he already had the tux ordered.
Hannah also had to cancel everything that had been reserved ahead of the wedding date — reception hall, caterer, photographer, flowers, band. The wedding was barely planned and yet there was all this detritus. The last time she'd broken up with a fiancé, they hadn't gotten this far into the planning — all she had to do was give back the ring. Wyatt was not getting the ring back — she'd sell it to pay for a vacation for herself.
All that cleanup took a full week. She then called the Realtor in Colorado and booked the house near Sullivan's Crossing for the first available two-week rental. She wanted a quiet, beautiful place to get her head together. It wouldn't be available for several weeks, but that gave her something to look forward to. Spring in the Rockies.
And then, just as she was starting to feel like herself again, the world came to an end. Her college roommate and best friend, Erin Waters, was consoling her on the phone, telling her it wasn't her fault, that no, she didn't attract losers, that everything was going to work out for the best — and all the while she was coughing relentlessly.
"You are going to see a doctor about that, aren't you?" Hannah asked.
"Absolutely," Erin said. "I feel like shit. I've been trying to sleep it off. But I guess I need drugs. I can't remember ever being this sick."
"And is Noah all right?" Hannah asked, speaking of Erin's five-year-old son.
"He's fine. I'm giving him extra vitamin C just in case. I have a doctor's appointment this afternoon and he'll be with Linda." Linda was Noah's regular babysitter, and Noah and Erin were very close to Linda and her family.
"Then you better stay home and rest."
"You know I will. I'm no martyr."
"Call me when you're back from the doctor. Let me know how it went, what he said."
"Sure," she said. Then she coughed hard and they ended the call.
Erin didn't call back. Instead, it was Linda who called a few days later. She explained that as soon as she examined Erin, the doctor called an emergency transport. She was taken to the hospital and admitted to the ICU with an advanced case of pneumonia, and in a very short period of time, she had passed away. Just slipped away. They resuscitated her twice and had her on life support for about twenty-four hours.
Devastated and in shock, Hannah headed for Madison at Linda's first call, as did their other two best friends, Sharon and Kate. They all stayed with Noah at Erin's house and made the funeral arrangements. They not only made all the arrangements, they paid for everything, as well. According to Erin's wishes, she preferred to be cremated and have a celebration of life. You wouldn't think a thirty-five-year-old woman would have articulated such desires, but she had a child, was estranged from her family, worked as a paralegal and had spelled out her wishes in a very precise will. The four women had been very close since college, kept in touch, saw each other regularly even though three of them lived in Minneapolis and Erin had moved to Madison after college.
It was a very complicated and unpleasant situation. Erin and her mother had always had a strained relationship and hadn't spoken in years. The main cause seemed to be a half brother who had been a delinquent since he was quite young. Erin said he was abusive and her mother had always stood up for him, even when she witnessed his horrible treatment of Erin. There was a time shortly after Hannah met Erin that Erin's brother had beat her, though he was five years younger. The police had been called. Erin wasn't too badly hurt but her mother pleaded with her to say it hadn't happened, claim she'd fallen so Roger wouldn't be arrested. He had only been fifteen at the time and had already been in lots of trouble. Erin refused and mother and daughter, being on opposite sides, withdrew from each other. Their communication from that point on was spotty and never friendly.
In fact, something Hannah and Erin had in common, something that had bonded them in college and later, was their difficulty with their mothers. Hannah's mother had passed away a couple of years ago but Erin's was still going strong, still protecting her son, regularly asking Erin to help Roger. Erin finally took a job in Madison when she was about twenty-six mainly to put distance between herself and her family.
Despite her troubled relationship with her mother, Erin was a wonderful, loving, happy person and had many good friends in and around Madison. Erin's mother was notified of her daughter's death but it wasn't really a surprise that no family members attended the celebration of life. The place was throbbing with people, all stunned and grieving, for she had always been a healthy and vibrant young woman, so active and positive. There hadn't been a man in her life at the moment, but a couple of exes turned up to pay their respects and to check on Noah, though none were Noah's father.
And that was where things got really complicated. Erin's will indicated that she didn't want Noah to be raised by her mother or her brother. She was afraid her mother would allow Roger near and that he'd be abusive to Noah. Her will was very clear. Calling on a years-old promise, Noah was to go into Hannah's custody. Hannah, who wondered if she'd ever marry, wondered if she even wanted to anymore, and who was slowly getting used to the idea that she'd never have children. Hannah, who had called off not one but two weddings.
Sharon and Kate were also named as alternates but both were married. Sharon was expecting her second child and Kate was the mother of two children and three stepchildren. Both women were nurses, one married to a teacher and one to an aircraft mechanic. They were working mothers with very full and busy lives. And Erin had made it clear she wanted it to be Hannah.
"I have no idea how to raise a child," Hannah said.
"Neither did we," Kate said. "I feel your pain. I inherited three stepchildren who hated me on sight. At least Noah loves you."
"We've lived in different towns. We haven't spent that much time together. He knows us all mostly because his mom was close to us." Because as young women will do, when they did get together, they tried to leave the kids behind. There were the occasional holiday gatherings, kids included, but as Hannah didn't have kids for Noah to play with, she felt they hadn't really bonded yet. And Noah had a couple of health issues that Hannah wasn't up to speed on because, while she paid attention when Erin talked, she wasn't dealing with his condition every day. He had a very mild case of cerebral palsy that caused weakness in his legs and for that he wore leg braces, used forearm crutches and spent a lot of time in physical therapy. Fortunately he was otherwise healthy. She knew there was every possibility those legs would strengthen and he'd reach his full mobility potential with the proper care. But not only was Hannah not a nurse like her other two friends, she was also not a mother.
"And yet, when she asked you, you said yes," Sharon reminded her.
"The first time it came up, we were in college!" Hannah said. "We were talking about our mothers — both of them were terrible mothers! And she said, 'If I ever have a family, will you take my children if anything should happen to me and my husband? And I promise to do the same for you!' And then five years ago when she decided to have a baby alone, she asked me again. Five years ago when I was thirty and I thought I was getting married in less than a year. I thought I'd get married and have a family. I didn't ever expect it to really happen or that I'd be on my own when it did. Oh God, I love Noah, but what if I fail him?"
That was when she remembered Erin had said the same thing when she was expecting — and she was the best mom Noah could have asked for.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Country Guesthouse"
Copyright © 2019 Robyn Carr.
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